Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Well, that changes everything

We’ve read a lot and given much thought to the construction and execution of our book’s opening hook. Writers have one page, tops—usually one paragraph—to hook a reader into the story.
The key to launching a story that readers will remember is to begin with an inciting incident that changes everything for the character.

In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett only cares about going to attending the barbeque at Twelve Oaks where she will see her beloved Ashley Wilkes. Early on, she hears Ashley is engaged to his cousin Melanie. Well, Scarlett isn’t about to let that happen. But before she can figure out how to remedy the situation and make Ashley realize he can’t live without her, the blasted war gets in the way. Poor Scarlett has several inciting incidents that change her narrow little world forever.

The fun part for the reader is to sit back and see how our lovely heroine gets out of the predicament the writer has thrust upon her.

Think about the last 5 books you’ve read, the last 5 movies you’ve seen. What was the opening incident that changed everything for the characters? Something major was at stake or you wouldn’t have kept reading or watching.

The last movie I saw was THE TOWN with Ben Affleck. The opening scene shows Ben and a group of friends robbing a bank. I won’t spoil the movie in case you haven’t seen it, but for reasons I can’t divulge, Ben and his cohorts go against their usual modus operandi and take a hostage. This event is triggered by Ben’s reaction to said hostage. Of course taking this hostage changes everything for Ben. The robbery and its aftermath make it impossible for Ben (or Doug, as he’s known in the movie) to go back to the way things were.

How do we create a situation like Scarlett’s or Doug’s that will irrevocably change everything they have ever known or will know?

First off, you must know your character. What are they hiding from? What is their greatest fear? Doug was abandoned by his mother. Rejection, abandonment, fear of losing someone he loves has contributed to the man he became though he probably never realized it.

Scarlett is headstrong and used to having men throw themselves at her feet. The fact that Ashley Wilkes does not react the same as every other man she’s ever met might have something to do with her illogical attraction to him. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize Ashley could never handle a woman like Scarlett. This doesn’t affect Scarlett’s determination. As we see played out over and over again throughout the story, what Scarlett wants, Scarlett gets, no matter who gets in her way.

So who is your character? What makes him tick? What’s the one thing he wants that he’s not equipped to handle? What is the worst thing that could happen to him? What incident will change everything for him?

It doesn’t have to be a civil war in his backyard. He doesn’t have to get shot during a holdup. It can be something as simple as seeing the girl who got away just as he walks into the church alongside his best man. It can be hearing a baby cry as she swallows the pain of losing a child in a car accident. It can be hammering a For Sale sign in his front yard.

An inciting incident. This incident is a turning point. There is no going back. A realization of no do-overs.

Ponder the chain of events your inciting incident will cause for the hero. There’s your story. Everything else will stem from what happens in your opening scene. It’s huge. It’s paramount to the rest of the story. It’s a jumping off point from which your character can never go back. Make it terrible. Make it magical. Make it a reason the reader must turn the page.

Happy writing.

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